The Democratic Party’s nomination campaign has now thankfully been reduced from its original platoon sized gaggle of “not him again”, “who’s that”, and “you’ve got to be kidding” candidates, to a still large but more manageable twelve, of which only three are polling in double digit numbers and only six qualified for the January debate.
The first six debates have consisted mostly of a combination of the usual “values” platitudes, condemnation of Trump, and an endless argument about the political and economic viability of “Medicare for all”. The seventh just held, was not much different, best exemplified by the fact that the media’s post mortem made the issue of whether Sanders told Warren in a private meeting a few years ago that he didn’t think a woman could win the presidency. He denies it; she says it’s true. If true, Sanders didn’t say he didn’t think a woman “should” be president. He said he didn’t think a woman “could” be president. This absurd non- issue, attempt by the media to create a politically relevant “issue” just shows how flaccid and superficial the whole process had become. What has been noticeably missing, even in the sixth debate which was supposed to feature the subject, has been any meaningful discussion of foreign policy.
The Constitution awards almost exclusive powers and responsibilities in this area to the President as “Commander in Chief” of the armed forces and chief diplomat with his attendant power to “receive diplomats” and “make treaties”. The first is a shared power only by the requirements of a declaration of war by the Congress and the largely ignored War Powers Act of 1973 which places restrictions on the deployment of troops without Congressional consent, and the second, with respect to treaties, which requires a 2/3 approval by the Senate.
Given the preponderance of foreign and national security powers that reside in the office of the President it would seem obvious that an understanding of the candidates positions on the many current issues in this realm as well as their respective backgrounds, level of knowledge and experience, if any, should be examined as part of their candidacy.
The debates, never known for vigorous policy examinations by the journalists who moderate them, have so far shed little light on these important issues and the candidates themselves have shown little interest in the subject.
Of the three front runners , those polling in double digits, only Joe Biden would seem to have any credentials for foreign policy expertise. As a Senator from Delaware for many years, he served as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. As President Obama’s Vice President for eight years, he held a seat on the National Security Council. If he attended the meetings and played an active role is not known. Now it has been asserted that he was the Obama Administration’s “point man” on relations with Ukraine, an association he may now regret.
Unfortunately he also has a reputation, summarized succinctly by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates , as getting everything wrong about “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
A look at Biden’s campaign web site reveals an Elizabeth Warren like blizzard of “plans” which he, like she, promises will solve all the problems Americans face. Of the eighteen “plans” however, none addresses any of the world’s or America’s foreign policy problems. Voters have to look elsewhere to see what Biden thinks about what’s going on beyond our borders.
Fortunately the Council on Foreign Relations contacted the candidates and asked a few specific questions about current issues. Not all the candidates responded and since then, some of them have dropped out of the race. But Biden, Warren and Sanders did provide written answers to the questions, a sample of which provide some insights into the candidates knowledge and preparedness to assume the responsibilities of the Commander in Chief and “chief diplomat”.
THE JCPOA, i.e. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) signed by Obama and from which Trump withdrew.
“I would re-enter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers i.e. China and Russia, to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints.”
I would take “a redoubled commitment to diplomacy to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.”
“I would re-enter the agreement on day one of my presidency and then work with the P5+1 and Iran to build upon it with additional measures to further block any path to a nuclear weapon, restrain Iran’s offensive actions in the region and forge a new strategic balance in the Middle East.”
“If Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal, the United States should return as well. If Iran is not in compliance, I will pursue strong and principled diplomacy in concert with our allies to bring both the United States and Iran back into the deal.”
“The JCPOA is only the beginning. We will need to negotiate a follow-on to the agreement that continues to constrain Iran’s nuclear program past the “sunset” of some of its original terms. “
“We also need to address serious concerns about Iran’s policies beyond its nuclear program, including its ballistic missile program and support for destabilizing regional proxies. ”
Biden seems to acknowledge indirectly, that the JCPOA was flawed from the outset. It contained a “sunset provision” in which the constraints of Iran’s development of weapons grade nuclear material would have to be renegotiated. It relied in part on Iran’s self reporting of nuclear development sites to the UN Atomic Energy Agency and did not contain any restraints on Iran’s development of long range missile nuclear capable delivery systems. It also made no mention of Iran’s regional interventions and support for international terrorism. Reentering the agreement would require the lifting of the harsh economic sanctions imposed by Trump to incentivize a return to negotiations to correct these serious flaws. This would remove any pressure on Iran to agree to more comprehensive terms which they have already said they would never do.
Sander’s and Warren’s responses are pure naivete’. They join Biden in thinking that the removal of sanctions as a first step would lead to broader based renegotiations. Russia, is a member of the P5+1 nations and is a partner with Iran in the intervention in the Syrian civil war on the side of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad , and would not be a useful negotiation partner. Reentry on “day one” would simply be a concession to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and would provide huge oil related financial assets to support Iran’s regional ambitions.
Warren’s idea of pressure is “strong and principled diplomacy with our allies”, whatever that is, and she also seems to have forgotten about the other participants in the agreement Russia and China, who are certainly not “our allies”.
NORTH KOREA: Question: “Would you sign an agreement with North Korea that entailed partial sanctions relief in exchange for some dismantling of its nuclear weapons program but not full denuclearization?”
“As president, I will empower our negotiators and jumpstart a sustained, coordinated campaign with our allies and others – including China – to advance our shared objective of a denuclearized North Korea.”
“I would offer partial relief of economic sanctions in return for partial progress on denucleariztion:” “I will work to negotiate a step-by-step process to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program, build a new peace and security regime on the peninsula and work towards the eventual elimination of all North Korean nuclear weapons.”
“Our goal should be the full elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But while we work toward that goal, we must reduce the threat now. “
“We need serious, realistic negotiations to address this threat. As a first step, and in coordination with our partners and allies, I would be prepared to consider partial, limited sanctions relief in return for a strong, verifiable agreement that keeps North Korea from expanding its arsenal or proliferating to other countries. An interim agreement would open the door to negotiations to reduce North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, control conventional weapons, and stop the regime’s crimes against humanity. That’s not only an imperative for our national security, it is the only credible path toward denuclearization.”
Biden’s brief response is a statement without substance and a complete dodge of the question, reflecting a lack of any diplomatic strategy or acknowledgment of North Korea’s goals or negotiating tactics.
Sanders and Warren offer a return to the past by offering “partial sanctions relief” for “partial denuclearization”. Warren’s response is typical of the simplistic and fatuous approach she has to most complex issues. Discussions, negotiations, bargaining and inconsistent behavior by the Kim dynasty with regard to nuclear weapons development has been on-going since December,1985 when N. Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il-sung agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970), which basically states that non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) will agree to not pursue development of nuclear military capability.
Since then four U.S. Presdents, Reagan, Bush 1, Bush 2 and Obama, in cooperation with our allies i.e. S.Korea and Japan, as well as China and Russia/, have been carrying out “serious, realistic negotiations” with the three Kims who have ruled North Korea. These negotiations have included sanctions relief, aid, renewed sanctions in response to blatant violations of the NPT and the negotiated agreements. All along it has been all three of the Kim’s position that no meaningful progress would be made unless all sanctions were repealed first. Essentially, it has been a fundamental goal of all of the N. Korean leadership to acquire nuclear weapons, live with the resulting sanctions and become a permanent nuclear weapons state. Warren offers nothing new.
Kim Jong-Un’s motivations are to acquire the international importance that goes with such nuclear power status and to make his regime immune from any possible attempts at regime change. Concessions on nuclear development could also create push back on the part of hawks in the N. Korean military and even in competitors for power in Kim’s own family. Also development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems validates the myth of U.S. aggression which justifies the hardships imposed on the N. Korean people.
Sanders is engaging in simple campaign blather to say he will “ will work towards the eventual elimination of all” N. Korea’s nuclear weapons. As long as China is willing to keep N. Korea’s economy afloat the U.S. should focus on deterrence while making it clear that proliferation on his part is unacceptable and result in even more punitive economic isolation and sanctions. Partial economic sanctions relief could be used as an incentive for de-escalation of tensions and strict adherence in this regard, but there is no reason to think that such a policy will result in complete denuclearization.
RUSSIAN INTERVENTION IN UKRAINE
“On the military side, I would provide more U.S. security assistance including weapons to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. I would also expand the successful training mission for the Ukrainian Armed Forces that was initiated by the Obama-Biden administration.”
“Economically, I would work to increase Western direct investment and support for Ukraine’s energy independence from Russia, particularly if the Nordstream II pipeline is built in the coming year, because this project would severely jeopardize Ukraine’s access to Russian gas.”
“Finally, I would support a much stronger diplomatic role for the United States, alongside France and Germany, in the negotiations with Russia. For diplomacy to work, however, we need stronger leverage over Moscow, and that means working more closely with our European partners and allies to ensure that Russia pays a heavier price for its ongoing war in Ukraine.”
“My administration will make clear to Russia that additional aggression will force the United States to increase pressure, including expanding beyond current sanctions. For now, our main priority should be to work closely with our European allies to help the new Ukrainian government make good on its promises to reform the economy, improve standards of living, and substantially reduce corruption. “
“Ukraine faces immense challenges that will require patient, long-term diplomacy and support from the West. We should start by shoring up relations with our EU partners in order to maintain the strongest possible diplomatic front, and by keeping pressure on the Kremlin to encourage changes in behavior. “
Biden at least seems to understand the issues. The Russian intervention into Ukraine is a complex issue which for several years has been the subject of French, German and Ukraine diplomatic efforts with Russia. Essentially, Russia has intervened and supported an armed separatist movement in the eastern provinces of Ukraine which is populated by a large number of ethnic Russians. Diplomatic solutions are complicated by the fact that polls show that a majority of the population in the disputed territories want to rejoin the post- Soviet Union Russian Federation. The governments of France and Germany have specific foreign policy/security interests in not allowing Russia to extend its control past its Western borders.
France is leading the diplomatic efforts. An aggressive involvement by a Biden Administration in the negotiations could complicate the problem and would have to be carefully analyzed prior to its inclusion.
Sanders seems to be saying ‘don’t worry”about the current Russian intervention and conflict, let’s rebuild the Ukrainian economy and tell the Russians, “no ‘further aggression’ or we’ll put big pressure on you’.
Warren response is similar, just more platitudes. “Long term diplomacy”? “Shoring up our relationships with our EU partners”. With respect to this problem our relationship with the EU is sound. Russia is the problem. This is a follow on to Putin’s successful annexation of the Crimea.
There is a state of armed conflict currently in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Ukraine’s sovereignty needs to be defended with military assistance by the U.S., France and Germany. Economic sanctions are already in place against Russia and these need to be strengthened especially in light of the potential completion of the Nordstream II pipeline which will bypass the current pipeline to Ukraine and supply natural gas to the EU through a distribution center in Germany. As Biden points out and Sanders and Warren seem unaware, this would allow Russia to cut off Ukraine’s supply of natural gas to force it to make territorial concessions.
WITHDRAWAL OF U.S. TROOPS FROM AFGHANISTAN
“I would bring American combat troops in Afghanistan home during my first term. Any residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be focused only on counter terrorism operations. We need to be clear-eyed about our limited enduring security interests in the region: We cannot allow the remnants of Al Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan to reconstitute, and we must destroy the Islamic State presence in the region. Americans are rightly weary of our longest war; I am, too. But we must end the war responsibly, in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our Homeland and never have to go back.”
“I would withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan as expeditiously as possible.
“It’s time to end our intervention there and bring our troops home, in a planned and coordinated way combined with a serious diplomatic and political strategy which helps deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid. Withdrawing troops does not mean withdrawing all involvement, and my administration would stay politically engaged in these countries and do whatever we can to help them develop their economy and strengthen a government that is responsible to its people. “
It's long past time to bring our troops home, and I would begin to do so immediately. “Redirecting just a small fraction of what we currently spend on military operations toward economic development, education, and infrastructure projects would be a better, more sustainable investment in Afghanistan's future than our current state of endless war. We should enlist our international partners to encourage a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that is sustainable and that protects U.S. interests. And we should redouble efforts to support the Afghan government and civil society as they work to promote the rule of law, combat corruption and the narcotics trade, and ensure the basic rights of all Afghans.”
Biden appears to miss the point that the underlying problem is the Taliban forces that have ruled Afghanistan off and on since the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989. Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the fundamentalist Taliban have broken down in their early stages. The war against the Taliban is not winnable. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and fought a losing nine year effort to destroy the Taliban’s antecedent Islamic militias ,the Mujahideen. The Taliban are more centrally organized and reflect the same problems of asymmetric warfare in a rugged and mountainous country.
Sanders’ response is purposely vague: “Expeditiously as possible”? “Serious diplomatic and political strategy” ? “Stay politically engaged” ? Bernie needs to offer some definitions of these generalities. He also totally ignores the basic issues: the civil war with the Taliban insurgency which wants to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan, and the issue of the possible re-emergence of Al Qaeda, the international terrorist organization which launched it’s 9/11 attacks on the U.S. from Afghanistan and precipitated the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Staying “politically engaged” conforms with Warren’s “plan” which is essentially to abandon military assistance and training and rely on others, “are international partners” to solve the problem of the insurgency.
Unless the Taliban finds some kind of motivation to agree to a political settlement which would necessarily grant them significant political power, the conflict will continue and “economic development, education, and infrastructure projects” won’t be possible in a hostile, unstable environment.
Biden’s plan to stay until Al Oaeda and the Islamic State elements are eliminated requires the cooperation of both the Taliban and the Afghan government and might still take years. But if successful, it would make possible the claim, even if not entirely true, that the “mission was accomplished” and withdrawal was then fully justified. But the conundrum for the U.S. now, and in the future, is continuing military support for the Afghan government to avoid a complete Taliban victory, or abandon a hopeless enterprise and accept the consequences of endless internal conflict with the ultimate prospect of the establishment of another fundamentalist Islamic state in the region. Either way, Sanders plan to “strengthen the government” or Warren’s plan to “redouble efforts” to create a viable non-corrupt civil society in what is essentially a failed state without the unlikely cooperation of a murderous theocratic military and political entity is just non-specific 2020 election blather.
ISRAEL/PALESTINIANS: THE TWO STATE SOLUTION
“I believe a two-state solution is the only path to long-term security for Israel, while sustaining its identity as a Jewish and democratic state.”
“I will restore credible engagement with both sides to the conflict. America must sustain its ironclad commitment to Israel’s security. Palestinian leaders should end the incitement and glorification of violence, and they must begin to level with their people about the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Israeli leaders should stop the expansion of West Bank settlements and talk of annexation that would make two states impossible to achieve. They must recognize the legitimacy of Palestinians' aspirations for statehood. Both sides should work to provide more relief to the people of Gaza while working to weaken, and ultimately replace, Hamas. And Arab states should take more steps toward normalization with Israel and increase their financial and diplomatic support for building Palestinian institutions.”
“Two states based on the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. Ultimately, it’s up to the Palestinians and Israelis themselves to make the choices necessary for a final agreement, but the United States has a major role to play in brokering that agreement. My administration would also be willing to bring real pressure to bear on both sides, including conditioning military aid, to create consequences for moves that undermine the chances for peace. “
As president, I would take immediate steps to reestablish America’s role as a credible mediator by welcoming the Palestinian General Delegation back to Washington and reopening an American mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. I would also make clear that in a two-state agreement both parties should have the option to locate their capitals in Jerusalem, as all previous serious plans have acknowledged. We should immediately resume aid to the Palestinians and financial support to UNRWA, and focus real financial and political resources on fixing the man-made humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip. I will oppose incitement to violence and support for terrorism by Palestinian extremists like Hamas. And I will make clear my unequivocal opposition to Israeli settlement activity and to any moves in the direction of annexation of the West Bank.
Biden’s response includes a lot of “shoulds”, and “musts” which may make sense, but he doesn’t seem to recognize the complexities of the seventy-two year old conflict whose roots go back to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Bernie thinks his simple solution, which has defied negotiations and included wars in 1948, 1956, 1963 and 1967, as well as conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon, would be successful. Hamas, which controls Gaza is a militant, Islamic terrorist organization with armed components, which has denied Israel’s right to exist in its founding documents. It is supported by Iran and shows no interest in a diplomatic solution or in allowing it’s “replacement” as Biden suggests.
The issues of the status of Jerusalem, the “right of return” of Palestinians to Israel proper, and existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank don’t seem to have been focused on by Biden. Jerusalem, where Warren wants to put a U.S. mission to the Palestinians is currently the capitol of Israel as declared by the government of Israel and by President Trump. The current political administration in Israel believes that a Palestinian state on it’s borders would inevitably be weaponized and only control over the disputed West Bank can maximize its security. Until a new administration comes about, and advocates a politically risky position towards a Palestinian state, the status quo is likely to be maintained.
Also, without a change of governments in Israel, Bernie has already squandered his credibility for the U.S. to have “a major role to play in brokering” an agreement by calling Israeli Prime Minister a “racist” and now threatening to block U.S. military aid which has been vital to Israel’s survival through all these years. Even with such a change, Warren’s stated “plan” is heavily slanted towards accommodating the demands of the Palestinians. But she doesn’t acknowledge the problem of the lack of a single Palestinian government with which to negotiate. She states opposition to Hamas inspired violence but has no leverage to use to make them agree to a secure Israeli state. Jerusalem, as a capital for two independent and hostile states is fraught with political and practical problems and it’s status, as well as West Bank settlements and possible annexation cannot be dictated by any U.S. President. Bernie is correct on this; saying any final settlement must be negotiated by a unified Palestinian authority and the government of Israel whose national security is its primary concern and responsibility.
It should be noted that President Trump has just announced that both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his major challenger in the March 2nd general election, General Benny Gantz of the more moderate Blue and White political party, are both coming to Washington D.C. to discuss the second phase of Trump’s “Peace Plan” for Israel and the Palestinians. The plan will be released prior to the visits and leaks from “informed sources” indicate that it will be strongly pro-Israel including U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the entire city of Jerusalem and the 100 plus Israeli settlements in the West Bank along with a highly limited “right of return” for Palestinians wishing to reenter Israeli proper.
The Palestinian Authority which speaks for the West Bank portion of the Palestinian territories not including Gaza, has already said they will reject the new proposal as they did the first part which included substantial economic development in Gaza. The Trump proposal will probably be enthusiastically supported by the Netanyahu government. But he first must overcome an indictment for alleged corruption in office by a vote for immunity in the Knesset. Then he must put together a conservative coalition government even if his Lukud party wins a plurality in the election. His challanger, General Benny Gantz might take a different view of the proposal which essentially would make a Palestinian state in the West Bank an impossibility.
Nonetheless, a new Netanyahu government would almost certainly affirm its claim for sovereignty based on U.S. affirmation even if the peace plan is rejected by the Palestinians.
The Democrat candidates will certainly reject and condemn the proposal but even if Trump is defeated, a new conservative Netanyahu government will proceed under its terms and make it difficult for a new Democrat administration in the U.S. to reject an official U.S. position after the fact.
Biden seems to know far more history and details of the foreign policy issues queried by the Council on Foreign Relations. Sander’s shows little interest, apparently more focused on getting his “socialist revolution” started and transforming the economy and culture of the nation. Warren is just minimally informed and her constantly mentioned preference for multi-national “diplomacy” seems to indicate an aloofness and lack of leadership with difficult problems. Foreign policy doesn’t play a role in her election strategy. Promising trillions of dollars in government handouts has more private citizen appeal than instability in far away places. When forced to address those problems ,she ignores the fact that Iran, North Korea ,Hamas and Russia and China are not responsible negotiating participants. They all have adversarial intent and perceived national interests that run counter to U.S. goals. Warren and Sanders use “diplomacy” as an escape for a reluctance to the proposal of specific strategies. Thus for them, “diplomacy” becomes a strategy itself, but it isn’t. Diplomacy is a negotiating process which seeks to identify mutual interests between parties in the pursuit of strategic goals and compromise on other interests or implementation. Both, or all parties, must have goals and real strategies in mind in order to avoid prolonged and useless conversations with the attendant frustrations and political theater which can deepen the divide.
Ir should go without saying that the roles of Commander in Chief and “chief diplomat” are extremely important components of presidential power. Trump has little experience in this are, but the does now have a three year record in trade relationships and national security. Voters should take the time to examine his record and the qualifications and current positions of his would be replacements which unfortunately, with the possible but uncertain, exception of Biden, seem to indicate a lack of knowledge, a naive dependency on ununified groups of "diplomatic partners" and a withdrawal from vital U.S. leadership.